Zimbabwean footballer crafts own career in the US

RADFORD, US — Brian Gwanzura, who was playing soccer as a tot, did not wear the proper shoes for that sport until he was 12 years old.

If that sounds risky to you, just wait until you hear what the typical local pitch back home in Zimbabwe looked like.

"These fields were like these rocks," he said, kicking the gravel underfoot with a like-new size 11 soccer shoe.

He was strolling down a crushed stone path on Radford University’s pastoral campus one recent afternoon, bound for the Highlanders practice field hard by the banks of the sparkling New River. The field on which he and his teammates would prepare for their next game was one long, smooth, dandelion-free, thick carpet of the richest deep green grass.

Gwanzura, a redshirt sophomore, had never seen anything like it until he arrived here as a soccer recruit.

Back home, he’d not once played on a field that included substantially more than dirt and rocks. Sometimes the field was a broken city street. He’d never worn a pair of soccer shoes all his own.

"My parents never bought me any shoes," he said.

There were other, more pressing family purchases to make such as food and fuel for cooking.

Gwanzura and his soccer-playing pals were typical. If there were any shoes at all, they were shared by many. The same shoes might be worn in three different games by three different players all in the same afternoon.

They wore what they had, regardless of size and condition.

"If they were too big, you wore extra socks," Gwanzura said with a laugh. "You force your feet into them if they are too small."

But those tired cleats were infinitely better than bare feet or obsolete running shoes, the typical transition footwear for soccer-playing locals just entering their teens.

As he explained all this, Gwanzura did so with great amusement.

"He has a smile on his face every day," said Marc Reeves, Radford’s coach since April.

Who knows what dark memories that broad grin hides?

Violence, economy make home ‘difficult’ place

Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, is a landlocked nation of 11.3 million in southeast Africa. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, the average life expectancy is 45.7 years. A full 15.3 percent of the population is suffering from HIV/AIDS, the sixth-highest rate in the world. Those living in poverty constitute 68 percent. Ninety-five percent are unemployed, according to 2009 figures.

Almost 570,000 were listed as "internally displaced" as a result of political violence, human rights violations, land reform and economic collapse in 2007.

"It is difficult there," Gwanzura said.

Even more so if one must play soccer, a national obsession, while wearing cleats two sizes too small or with no shoes at all.

Thus, before a rare trip home last year, Gwanzura thought it might be nice to grab a few old pairs of cleats that he had lying around and collect a few more pairs from teammates and take them back home to give away.

"Most of the guys had two, three pairs of cleats," he said of his well-shod teammates.

What an incredible bounty.

"I took four pairs of cleats back home, and I gave them to my close friends who I had played with," Gwanzura said. "They really appreciated it. They didn’t have any cleats to use."

The knocks on the door at his family dwelling started almost at once.

"Hey, man, you have any more boots?"

Then it came to him.

"I knew that there are more people like that."

A little help from groups big and small

When Gwanzura returned to the United States, he did what gifted 6-foot-4-inch athletes were born to do: He acted quickly and decisively.

"I came into the locker room, and I wrote on the board," he said. " ‘If any of you guys have some old cleats that you are not using, may you please give them to me because I would like to send them back home?’ "

The shoes started rolling in. That largesse produced its own set of problems.

"He asked me if there was any way I knew he could get them shipped because he figured it would be quite expensive," Reeves said.

The coach did.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has a program called Passback that collects old and "gently used" soccer gear and redistributes it to those who need it. Since 2002, more than 700,000 items have changed hands to the less-fortunate, according to the federation’s website.

"I connected with Passback and told them we’d kind of like to specifically send [the cleats] back to Zimbabwe," Reeves said. "They said they sometimes do that, but we’d have to connect with Eurosport." Eurosport is a U.S.-based soccer equipment catalog company.

"Eurosport helped us out as well," Reeves said. "Whatever we can get together, they’re going to ship out. Because of the NCAA, I can’t pay for it and the school can’t pay for it."

Then Reeves had another revelation. They’d simultaneously connect with a local action group for a collection drive to help the less fortunate in and around Radford. He met with Beans and Rice Inc. an anti-poverty agency started at Radford University in 1998. Folks there suggested a backpack drive for local schoolchildren.

Up went the collection boxes at Cupp Stadium — shoes in one, backpacks in the other. So far, between 30 and 40 pairs of shoes have come in, along with a number of backpacks.

"I got cleats from a friend of mine on the swimming team," Gwanzura said.

Who wears cleats on a swimming team?

Hoots of laughter — "I don’t know what she used them for."

Family, school can tell he is more than average

Gwanzura’s uncle counseled him to come to Radford for soccer

Gwanzura’s a good citizen. He’s also a good midfielder.

"He’s a fantastic player," said Reeves, who inherited him from previous coach Spencer Smith, now coaching the women’s team at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Gwanzura, a member of his country’s under-17 national team as a junior in high school, led Radford with four goals and eight points last year. During the current campaign, he has one goal on 13 shots for the Highlanders (4-3-2 overall, 2-0 Big South Conference).

"He’s very humble, so he probably says he’s an average player, but he’s not," Reeves said. "He’s athletically gifted. He’s 6-foot-4. He moves very well for that size kid. He has good skill on the ball and great ideas going forward. We’re very fortunate to have him here at Radford."

Gwanzura connected with Radford largely through the efforts of his maternal uncle, Gladman Dimbri, a London-based coach and scout. Dimbri plays host to showcase camps in Zimbabwe that have brought other promising players to the United States.

Gwanzura had offers from Dayton University in Ohio, Winthrop and Radford, which came first. The uncle recommended Radford.

"I don’t know why he did, but I am glad," the nephew said. "This is where I should be."

"There’s a lot of good players from Zimbabwe," said Reeves, who worked with one when he was associate head coach at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y.

Others from Zimbabwe play in the Big South. Winthrop, for example, has a pair of freshmen, Tinotenda Chibharo and Brandon For- lemu, both from Gwanzura’s city, Harare, the capital. Its population of 1.6 million is the country’s largest.

There are many more soccer-booting feet where those came from.

There’s help to go around for everyone

Radford athletic director Robert Lineburg admires Gwanzura’s project.

When Lineburg was an assistant basketball coach for Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he took two recruiting trips to the northwest African coastal nation of Senegal. The portion of people there living below the poverty line in 2001, the last time it was measured, was 54 percent, according to CIA figures.

Lineburg, who grew up in Radford, saw want in Senegal unlike any he’d witnessed.

"They literally don’t have shoes," Lineburg said. "The poverty is really amazing in places like that. I commend Brian for what he is trying to do."

Sometimes the helper needs help, especially when far from home. Gwanzura was in that position this spring when his father died of respiratory disease.

Through the efforts of a couple of assistant athletic directors at Radford — Stephanie Ballein and Robbie Davis — the school applied successfully for an NCAA allowance for grieving athletes and was able to send Gwanzura back to his family.

"Robbie and Stephanie worked together to arrange all the transportation to and from Zimbabwe," Lineburg said. "We thought that was absolutely the right thing to do — to get him home.

"It meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to us that he was able to do that."

So which was worse, cleats too big or too small?

Gwanzura let loose with howls of laughter at that one. At length, he could compose himself enough to answer in his richly melodious accent.

"I want my cleats, like, tight," he said. "I would prefer not too small, but tight. But you usually do not have a choice."

Some players back home do have a choice now. Their numbers are growing.